Western Governors University: Competency-Based Education Expands Higher Ed Options in Pennsylvania

In the PA Chamber’s 2019 Pennsylvania Economic Survey, employers listed a lack of qualified applicants as the most pressing issue they face. Local industries require a skilled workforce to maintain and continuously modernize their service and product offerings. Without a top-notch talent pool prepared with relevant 21st century skills, businesses face the possibility of failing to remain viable and competitive.

At the same time, national data suggest that as the pandemic continues, more people are looking for ways to boost their career advancement potential. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that at predominantly online institutions, graduate student numbers increased by nearly 10 percent last fall from the previous year, and growth continued by 7.4 percent this spring. In the fall of 2018, 23 percent of Pennsylvania undergraduates and 33.2 percent of graduate students enrolled in distance courses. In the wake of COVID-19, that number has grown.

As Pennsylvania’s outstanding higher education institutions respond to the need for workforce development, online, competency-based education opportunities expand options for prospective students who seek to earn a career-relevant degree, while also working full-time and juggling family responsibilities.

Competency-based education measures skills and subject knowledge rather than time spent in a classroom. Pioneered in 1997 by nonprofit, accredited Western Governors University, each student individually progresses through courses as soon as they can prove they have mastered the material. Every WGU student is assigned a mentor—a faculty member with advanced degrees and relevant experience in a field of study—who provides individualized support to keep students moving steadily toward their degree and career goals.

In each of WGU’s four colleges—business, health professions, information technology and teaching—competency-based degree programs align with workforce imperatives and are highly-adaptable, allowing education and industry partners to create and refine high-quality learning pathways that leverage technology effectively and are tailored for the future of work.

For many of the 6,700 Pennsylvania-based WGU students and alumni, this model is the only way they can achieve a college degree and continue to advance in their careers without interruption. This innovative learning model is complementary to traditional higher education options in the Commonwealth, expanding opportunity to fill existing gaps.

Novella Winborne, a Philadelphia-based student in the WGU B.S. in Accounting program explained, “There is such freedom in being able to take my laptop with me and work anywhere, without having to work around a brick-and-mortar class schedule.”

WGU has a low-cost, flat-rate tuition per six-month term, during which students can complete as many courses as their schedules allow. A 2019 Gallup Alumni survey found that 42 percent of WGU undergraduate alumni completed their degree without taking out student loans. For those that did, the average debt in 2019 was $14,941, compared to the national average of $29,900.

Innovative approaches to college education provide a key long-term strategy for workforce investment and labor market recovery. WGU is pleased to partner with traditional colleges and universities on credit transfers for our shared students, and with local businesses to support human resource objectives and expand access to higher education for their employees.

As Pennsylvania’s economy moves forward dramatically changed by COVID-19, the academic needs of Pennsylvanians continue to evolve and change, as do regional workforce needs and the demand for specific skill sets. Higher education has a duty to help connect talent with professional opportunity, by offering a variety of ways to train Pennsylvania’s workforce with the credentials employers trust.

For more information, visit www.wgu.edu.